Brother Blott

          The older brother who does the artwork for my covers was introduced here, at Authors Electric a few days ago.

Brother Adam, at the PriceClan Xmas do
     The brother who does the Blott cartoons is Adam, the younger brother, who is left-handed and, virtually from the time he could sit up, showed a strong abiiity to create in 3D.
     As a toddler he was never without a lump of soft plasticene, and astonished me one day, when he was about 4, by showing me a model he'd made of our budgie. It could have served as a silhouette for a book on identifying birds: it was unmistakeably a budgie and nothing else.
Art work: Adam Price
     He wasn't much older when, strongly impressed by an afternoon screening of 'Jaws', he took up his little blunt-ended scissors (which also rarely left his side) and cut, free-hand, a perfect silhouette of a Great White. I was 15 years older, and fancied myself observant, but I couldn't have drawn such a perfectly observed shark, right down to the ventral fins, gills and tail-flukes.
     He'd take the left-over bits of plastic from the airfix planes he used to make, and construct odd, imaginative little robots, with engine-cowlings for heads, bits of fuselage for breast-plates, and long lances of sprue.
     He is still drawing, painting, carving and writing, but I interrupted him to ask, rather superfluously,  How did you become such an accomplished artist?
Samurai and mouse by Adam Price

      Adam: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? - Practice, and being open to absolutely everything you see, being a visual magpie. So if I see a piece of graffitti art that I like I copy it - not the image itself but its way of expressing its ideas. I studied American Indian art and Mayan art and Hindu art and stole little pieces of their method of expression, the way they draw a hand or the fold of a cloth.
      S: How did you get your cartoons published?
      A: It was absolute blind luck. I've since read all kinds of dire statements about how impossible it is to get a cartoon published in today’s market - but I just blithely went ahead, developed a strip based around the pair of armadillos on Noah’s Ark, and sent it round to people. Of course everyone turned it down, but one local paper in Devon said 'We're looking for something with a more local flavour,' so a week later I presented all the same jokes but between two rabbits on Dartmoor! Sold!

     (Adam doesn't mention that a cartoon appeared every weekday, but on Saturdays there was a large spread featuring the bunnies in a rather fine drawing of a local beauty-spot.) 

      S: How did you get the idea for Blot?
Wentworth, by Adam Price
      A: Some time ago I was working on a strip based around a kind of gangly stray cat called Wentworth. Wentworth lives rough and loves music - the bongos being his favourite instrument - and is haunted by the ghost of one of the many mice he has eaten in his lifetime. Periodically Wentworth would be drawn to a particular house where he would spend all night singing (and playing the bongos) to the woman who lives there. When asked by the mouse why he did this, Wentworth would say 'I have to – she’s my mews'. This rather weak pun was where Blot originated and his blank stare and smooth shape was developed from the ghost mouse.  
      S: How do you produce the cartoons?
      A: I've tried a number of ways. I have used a graphic tablet, and various high-tech bits and bobs but I find it’s quicker and more
intuitive to draw Blot on paper in black ink. He then gets scanned and cleaned up, then I colour him on the computer before his lettering gets added.
      S: Is Blott going to be published?
      A: I've toyed with the idea of producing a self-published collection - but I'm so busy with other things.

       One of those things is marriage, in May, to his longstanding partner, Patti, who we all love - hi, little sis! - and we're all looking forward to dancing at the wedding!

No Blott this week - but something different...

A Sterkarm Pud

          If you're like me, you only eat the meal so you can get to the pud.
           Oh, stop pretending – you know very well that you’ve chosen your pudding before your starter – a simple task for me, as it’s just a matter of deciding what has the most chocolate in it.
          In The Sterkarm Handshake, the pudding is a great disappointment to Windsor, as it’s simply a repetititon of the creamy, buttery ‘grewts’ the meal began with, but served with honey and berries instead of raw meat.
          The Sterkarms could probably have honestly claimed to ‘not have a sweet tooth’ since they would rarely, if ever, have eaten anything sweeter than honey and fruit – and their fruit would have been closer to the wild varieties, seasonal, and much less sweet than the kinds we have today.
          Honey was seasonal, and although stored for use throughout the year, was relatively scarce and valuable and wouldn’t have been used with the carelessness that we use sugar.  Poorer Sterkarms, unless they had the time and skill to keep bees, would have counted themselves lucky to taste it on ‘high days and holidays.’
         Sugar was available, but in the early 16thCentury was only just beginning to be produced in bulk, and it was still, like other spices, extremely expensive.  The soft sassenachs might have been going mad with it down in London until every tooth in their head was black, but I doubt if the fashion for it, or much of the stuff itself, was yet to be found on the Borders.
         So, for this Sterkarm dessert, you can either serve groats again, with honey, small wild strawberries, raspberries and bilberries – or may I suggest something a little different, that very ancient British pud, frumenty?
Doesn't that look tempting?
          I’ve no doubt the Sterkarms enjoyed frumenty on many another day.  Perhaps they thought it too good for Windsor.  (Isobel didn’t want to waste her spices on him.)
          You take 140g of cracked wheat, or bulgar wheat, or semolina.
          Half a litre of ale.
          Two eggs
          A couple of handfuls of raisins.
          Half a teaspoon, or a large pinch, of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.
          Three to four tablespoons of single cream.
          Honey or sugar, some water to top up and – if you’re feeling really extravagant – a pinch of saffron.
          Soak the wheat overnight in the ale.  Most of the liquid will be absorbed.
          Put the wheat in a pan over heat, and add a little more ale, or water.  Add the spices and boil until the wheat is soft.  The smell is pretty wonderful.
          Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little, then add the raisins and stir them in.
          Then add the cream and two beaten eggs.  Don’t add them while the mixture is too hot, or the eggs will cook like scrambled egg.
          Return to a low heat and cook.  Add sugar or honey to taste – and the saffron if  you’re using it.
Expensive foreign almonds! Not for the Sterkarms.
          You can add nuts, or berries when you serve it.
          This also used to be served with meat, such as venison or pork, as well as being a sweet dessert.
          For the Sterkarms, this would have been a real luxury, celebratory dish, something only for special occasions, such as Hogmanay, weddings, christenings and such.  Eggs, cream, fruit and honey were all seasonal - something we tend to forget - and therefore prized.  The spices and raisins would have been extremely expensive.  About the only thing that was common-place was the ale, which was drunk instead of water – and even though ale would have been brewed every week, and was served at every meal, it still represented hours of work.

          FREE BOOKS! - On the 23rd and 24th of this month, to mark Shakespeare's birthday, those crazy Authors Electric are giving away e-books for free.  For details of what books, and how to find them, go to on the 23rd April.

A Sterkarm Dinner-Party: The Main

A soay sheep posing as a Sterkarm sheep
     Now for the main course of the Sterkarm dinner party.
     It’s a delicious meat pudding.  In The Sterkarm Handshake, Per Sterkarm went out especially to catch a deer for it, and the deer was hung for several days - but if you can’t put your hands on a deer, fallow or red, you can use a sheep, goat, or even a cow, though  obviously, the size of your pudding will vary, and the amount of other ingredients will have to be adjusted.
       The recipe below assumes you are using a sheep.
       Take the stomach, liver, heart and lungs.
       You’ll also need three onions, 250 grams of beef lard, 150 grams of the inevitable oatmeal, salt, and about 150 mls of stock.  
      Also some of that expensive spice, pepper – the little dried berries of a vine, picked and dried half a world away.  Their price reflects the distance they’ve travelled.
          Start preparing this dish at least a day before you need it because first you must clean the stomach well, emptying it of what the animal was last keeping in it, and washing it out.  Soak it overnight (in a wooden bowl or tub, probably).
          In the morning, turn the stomach inside out, and boil it for one and a half hours in good stock.  (There would always be a stock-pot full of bones and bits boiling in the Sterkarm kitchen.)  Make sure that the weasand – that it, the windpipe – hangs over the edge of the pot, to allow drainage – though drainage of what I’d rather not ask, if you don’t mind.
          While the belly-bag is boiling, slap the heart and lungs on a table-top or large chopping board, and mince them with a big knife.
          Get hold of the liver and chop up half of it.  (The other half isn’t needed for the pudding, so Per Sterkarm probably had it as a treat, and a reward for catching the deer.)
          Keep chopping! –chop  up the onions and the beef lard.
          In a large crock or tub, mix together the chopped heart, lungs, liver, lard, onions and oatmeal.  Season well with salt.
          Then the peppercorns need to be ground.  If you are the lady of the tower, Isobel, then obviously you can use your own pepper as you like.  If you’re a mere cook, you will need to ask for the peppercorns, as they are so valuable they will kept locked away.  Grind them in a pestle and mortar, and add to the mix.
          Add sage, thyme and parsley, if liked.  They will have been grown by Isobel, or gathered wild, and may be either fresh or dried.
          Take some of the water the belly was boiled in, and add enough to the mixture to make it a little watery.
          Now take the belly-bag and put it in another bowl, to support it, with the opening at the top.  Fill it with the mixture of oatmeal and offal until it’s half-full.
          Squeeze out the air, and sew it up with thread.
          Put it back into the boiling stock, top up with water, and boil for three hours, without a lid.  Don’t let it boil dry, and  if the stomach starts blowing up, prick it with a needle.
          When it’s done, bring to table and cut into steaming slices.  Serve with its own gravy and boiled neeps – that is, turnips.  Some turnip greens, would also be good, if  in season, as would carrots – which, in the Sterkarm’s time, the early 16thCentury, would be purple, not orange.  (They would never have called their redheads ‘carrot-top.')
          No potatoes. The plant hadn’t yet been introduced to Britain.
          They would expect you to tuck in enthusiastically, and Isobel Sterkarm would be beside herself with disappointment and shame if you didn’t.  After all, she and her maids had worked long and hard in a stifling kitchen to offer you their very best.
          The offal was far more nutritious, juicy and tasty than the tough, dry, lean muscle meat from their hardy little beasts – and they’d put expensive pepper in it, just for you!
          Isobel would press second and third helpings on you, because it was a terrible slight to be called mean, or for anyone to say that they left your table hungry.  It would be a matter of pride, too, to show that they didn’t need to care about saving food. And, of course, the more you ate, the more Isobel could pride herself as a hostess.
          However politely you refused, she would heap your plate anyway.  She wouldn’t be able to help herself.
        Toorkild and Per Sterkarm would probably make sure the pudding was finished but if, somehow, there was any pudding left over, it would turn up at breakfast, fried.  And, because you were a guest, the envious Sterkarm men would be denied it, and it would land on your plate.  With a clonk.  Good appetite!

Head Mangling with the Sterkarms

Always a cheerie chappie
          Orwell said writing a book was like enduring a long drawn out bout of illness.
          When I first read that, as teenager, I didn’t believe it.  I thought, ‘What an old moan. He’s earning a living by writing instead of in a factory, and all he can do is grumble about it.’
          Now, much older, I realise what a true word the man wrote: and I’ve been learning how true all over again.  Somehow, you always forget.
          I’ve slogged for three years on this Sterkarm book, just working out a plot, and I’ve finally figured out – I think – how it’s to end.
          And I kidded myself that I was now on the downward slope.  One final rewrite , to knock it all into shape, right?

          I’ve been rewriting this past week, with two windows open on the computer – one for the slog version, and one for the new and, I hope, final version.  Copying and pasting from one to the other, and re-ordering, rewriting, changing, improving…
          And it’s been even more head-nipping than before.
          With almost every sentence I’m having to jump back to earlier chapters or pages, because, I find, I’ve thrown in something crucial on the fly, promising myself that I’d sort it out later.  Well, the later is now.  I have to go back and work out where it should have been introduced and, when I’ve found the place, I have to do the work of finding the words to actually blend whatever it is in, without it seeming too obvious.
          Or I realise that I’d forgotten all about an important character – who should be in this scene – but isn’t.  Who would have important and interesting things to say – if I go back and work him or her into the scene – which may mean going back a considerable way to establish their presence.  And then I have to find the words for those interesting and important things they would say, and the right tone – in fact, work out what they’re feeling at that moment.
          Or I find a character in a scene who really isn’t necessary and has to be written out… and the scene patched up around the hole they’ve left.
          I’d forgotten how much thought and concentration – and referring to research notes - this all takes.
         And this is saying nothing about the moving around of whole scenes, the writing of new ones, the new decisions on where chapters should start and end, and the rewriting required to make those changes work.
          Head-nipping?  It’s head-mangling.
          It makes me think of my old headmaster (a maths graduate), who infuriated my art-teacher by telling him that ‘art requires no intelligent thought.’  I am certain my headmaster had never tried to write a novel.
          It’s given me a fervent love of Word’s navigation pane (called document map in earlier versions) which makes it possible for me to skip about, from heading to heading, in seconds, instead of spending an age scrolling backwards and forwards, or opening and closing lots of files before finding the bit I want.
          In fact, I find myself giving thanks again for computers in general.  If I’d had to do all this with paper and pen, or with an old typewriter and loose paper, I would have tipped myself into an empty paper box and had myself buried by now.

          Blott is particuarly relevant this week, as it seems authors are being plagued by a specialist species of internet troll, as Kathleen Jones tells us here, at Authors Electric.